Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost: the Dark Night of the Soul

by Fr. Richard G. Cipolla
Parish of St. Mary
Norwalk, Connecticut
The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy

From the Gospel of St. Matthew:  “ My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”.
From the Gospel of St. John:  “I thirst”.

Many years ago I tried to read The Story of a Soul by St Thérèse of Lisieux.  I was about to enter the Catholic Church and thought I should read this because of St Thérèse’s great popularity in the Church, the Little Flower.  I could not get through it.  I found it saccharine and too much late nineteenth century French piety.  While I was teaching in New York City and just after I was received into the Catholic Church,  I used to go to Mass early in the morning at Corpus Christi Church on the Upper West Side.  I liked the pastor very much, a very intelligent man and somewhat of a curmudgeon. One morning he gave a brief homily on St Thérèse’s feast day, and he described her as a woman of steel.  I was quite taken aback. A woman of steel.  Coming from him this was high praise, so I went back to the Story of a Soul and read it through.  The best part for me was toward the end, when she describes in veiled but real terms her struggle with her faith.  This spurred me on to read her Last Conversations, where that struggle is more apparent.  A few months before her death she said to Mother Agnes:  “Look! Do you see the black hole where we can see nothing: it’s in a similar hole that I am as far as body and soul are concerned.  Ah! What darkness!  But I am at peace.”  She did not receive Holy Communion for the last few months of her life.  On her deathbed she heard voices telling her that heaven was just a figment of her imagination Her Sisters thought she refused to receive Communion out of fear that she would desecrate it in a coughing spell  But that was not it at all.  It was the darkness that she knew as an absence of faith.  It was that book that made me understand her as a woman of steel, and she became a real spiritual force in my priesthood.

All this came back to me some six years ago when Mother Teresa was about to be beatified.  The priest who was the postulator for the cause of canonization of Mother Teresa published a number of Mother Teresa’s letters to her confessors and spiritual directors that spoke so eloquently and clearly of the deep spiritual darkness that was present in her whole religious life except a brief time at the beginning as a Sister of Loreto, when there was a deep mystical relationship with the person of Jesus Christ in which she received her deep sense of vocation.

Listen to her words written shortly before she founded the Missionaries of Charity.
 In the darkness…Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer…When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.  Love—the word—it means nothing. I am told God lives in me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.
And more:  They say that people in hell suffer eternal pain because of the loss of God.  In my soul I feel just this terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing. That terrible longing keeps growing, and I feel as if something will break in me one day.  Heaven from every side is closed.  I feel like refusing God...Where is my faith.. even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness..My God…how painful is this unknown pain.. I have no faith..I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart…because of the blasphemy.”
You can imagine my surprise when I read Pope Francis’ sermon at Mother Teresa’s canonization Mass that there was no reference at all to this dark night in which she lived for most of her life.  Instead we had the standard sermon about her love for the poor and her heroic efforts in their behalf all in the name of the mercy of God in the person of Jesus Christ.  All true.  All wonderful.  All important. But in a way standard.  That is what we all saw, that is what the world saw, that remarkable love and compassion that included not only the poor and the outcast but the unborn as well.  But the world assumed and Catholics assumed that what she did and who she was, was the fruit of her deep personal relationship to God and it was from the reality and presence of this relationship, especially in prayer, that she received the grace and strength to do what she did and to be who she was.  But it was not.  And that is why she and St. Thérèse of Lisieux are saints for our time, for modern man, for whom the absence of faith is what sets him apart from other times in history.  Both of these women, but even more relevant for our world Mother Teresa, acted out their faith in Jesus Christ even when that faith was not there.  They both force us to question what faith means, and faith not as a notion, but something real. 

Blessed John Henry Newman reminded his contemporaries and he reminds us as well that faith is the consequence of willing to believe.  Faith is an act of the will, which act indeed is possible because of the grace of God.  But like love, faith is an act of the will and any attempt to reduce it to feeling or something that can be manipulated results in a counterfeit faith.  Newman says:  “When, then, men are bent on holding it (as it were) in their hands….they substitute for it a feeling, notion, sentiment, conviction, or an act of reason, which they may hang over and dote upon.  They rather aim at experiences (as they are called) within them, than at him that is without them.”  This is what Mother Teresa understood so deeply and painfully, and this is why she could respond in a letter to a priest who was having problems with his faith with these words:  “In you, today, he wants to relive his complete submission to his Father.  It does not matter what you feel but what he feels in you”.

The whole question of faith should be at the top of the bishops’ concerns in this age in which the number of Catholics going to Mass is below 28% in this country and lower in Europe.  But such religious, intellectual and existential questions do not seem to interest them very much.  They prefer to seek solutions in professional con artists who promise to turn things around by programs that are more suitable for corporate executives who need to be motivated,  or in youth ministers who confuse faith with emotionalism and who seem to be clueless that this approach is doomed to failure, as so many Protestants painfully have found out through the past few decades.  At a time when young people who are in the thrall of individualistic secularism need to be challenged to see what a reasonable faith looks like and what it can mean for them, they are fed baby food at Mass and at youth events.  At a time when our Catholic men and women need to be challenged intellectually and spiritually, what they encounter in so many of our parishes prevents them from engaging with faith at a deeper level.

Every chapel of the convents of the Missionaries of Charity has a large crucifix over the altar.  And above the crucifix are the words: “ I thirst”.  I have been saying Mass for many years for the Missionaries of Charity in Bridgeport, and I have often wondered about the large crucifix in their quite small chapel.  The inordinate size of the crucifix offends my sense of proportion, my aesthetic sense.  And the words, “I thirst”, are written to the left, in not very elegant writing.  But I do understand.  Deprived of any consolation of faith, where even her memory of the first spiritual encounters with the person of Jesus Christ where she found her vocation was subjected to doubt and darkness, and yet knowing somehow and somewhere that it is precisely in the poorest of the poor, in the wretched of the world, in those no one cares about, that the darkness makes sense if that is possible:  the Cross of Christ with its infinite suffering is all that makes sense.  The agony in the garden is not merely the prelude to Good Friday but is the beginning of the darkness of God, that darkness understood by Abraham about to sacrifice his son, Isaac, that darkness understood by Job and trashed by his friends who liked the light of faithless reason more than the terrible truth, the terrible darkness that is the cry of dereliction from the Cross:  that is what drove Mother Teresa, this is what made her thirsty, this is what she knew: that only sacrificial love can understand and in a way accept this darkness and give it meaning.  And all of this with no consolation, no pious twaddle about the “dark night of the soul” as if this is something understandable or a religious game and just having to get through to the sunny side of the street and could be made into one more terrible Hollywoodesque religious movie. When I celebrated Mass yesterday morning for the Missionaries I talked about this.  I told them:  do not turn Mother Teresa into a fiberglass statue, unreal and hollow.

To be holy, that is, to live a life of absolute sacrifice for others, without any hope of reward neither on earth nor in heaven:  that is something to ponder.  It is quite far away from what most of us think the Catholic faith is about.  But there may be, nay rather, I suspect there are, there are here at this Mass those who do understand, But we will never know.  Because just as the words, Hoc est enim corpus meum and Hic est calix sanguinis mei are said silently,  those who understand are silent, as they should and must be.